The parallels were simply too much for Vladimir Putin. The last time a major opposition leader was allowed to return home from Germany unimpeded, it did not end well for Russia’s ruling elite. On January 17, the Kremlin was not about to let Alexey Navalny copy the man whose arrival by sealed train from Berlin in 1917 after years in Swiss exile sparked the October Revolution.
Moments after touching down in Moscow, Navalny was whisked away to a makeshift court hastily convened at a local police station and jailed for 30 days. Just then, his team released the secret weapon. The video titled Putin’s Palace has now been watched 97.5 million times and spawned anti-government rallies in over 120 cities across Russia.
For all the furor caused by the video, it’s remarkable how little new information it contained. The allegations behind Putin’s Palace—that the Russian president is the hidden beneficiary of a sprawling property on the Black Sea built with taxpayer money embezzled by his friends and family members—were first revealed back in 2010. Nor was there anything particularly unusual about Navalny’s arrest: He has spent significant portions of the past decade behind bars.
Yet there is a hard-to-shake feeling among many observers of Russian politics that the Rubicon has been crossed. For one thing, Navalny’s decision to come back to Russia and risk certain jail, or even another attempt on his life, was an act of such singular courage that it seemed to send a jolt of electricity through the nation’s jaded conscience. The video, which distilled all the charges Navalny has leveled at the regime for years into a heady Molotov cocktail of dark humor and righteous anger, did the rest.
For Princeton professor Ekaterina Pravilova, a specialist in tsarist-era law, economy, and governance, the video’s greatest achievement was the “desacralization of power.” By using humor and irony to ridicule Putin’s venality and bad taste, Navalny turned a formerly revered leader into a punch line. Revelations that the palace contained something called an aqua-disco and that its bathrooms were fitted with €700 toilet brushes birthed instant memes. For the Kremlin, the sight of toilet brush–wielding protesters chanting “Aqua-disco!” at police, as one of my friends witnessed while attending last Saturday’s march in St Petersburg, is no laughing matter: “When power loses the aura of sainthood, the legitimacy of a monarch crumbles,” said Pravilova.
According to Sergei Guriev, a leading economist who fled Russia in 2013 and teaches at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, the nationwide protests of January 23 were “unprecedented in their scale and breadth,” spreading far beyond the usual metropolitan flashpoints of Moscow and St Petersburg. “They do not imply the end of the regime,” said Guriev by e-mail, “yet they are a challenge the Kremlin has not seen before.”
The biggest acknowledgment of a paradigm shift in the opposition’s relations with the state came from Putin himself. Never before has the president addressed any allegations aired by Navalny. But on January 25, during a live Q&A with university students, he allowed himself to be asked about the film directly. Putin replied that he had not seen it apart from selected clips shown to him by staff, but that “none of what was made out to be my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did. Never.”
The tightly controlled nature of Putin’s public appearances leaves little doubt that the question was planted or at least pre-vetted. The fact alone that the Kremlin felt it necessary to respond to the video suggests a qualitative leap in Navalny’s political capital. Where he could once be derided as a nuisance activist, Navalny has now been anointed аs Putin’s official rival.
The change became immediately apparent on state television. Having up to now mainly ignored Navalny, Channel 1’s flagship 9 pm news bulletin was saturated with coverage of the rallies. Four main arguments were made: The turnout was poor; most of the attendees were uninformed children brainwashed on TikTok and placed in danger by Navalny; marchers used violence against police; Navalny is a Western agent.
“Many experts are convinced that [Navalny] has close links to foreign security services, from as far back as his time as an intern at Yale,” said the narrator of one segment. Later, American conspiracy blogger and regular RT contributor Caleb Maupin announces: “Alexey Navalny is an asset of Western intelligence.”
The point was hammered home by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, who singled out an alert posted on the US Embassy website noting the start times and routes likely to be taken by the marchers. “What was that?” she said, looking ominously into the camera. “A call, an instruction, a motivation? It’s interesting to see how the US authorities would have behaved had the Russian embassy done something similar in Washington.” It took me a few minutes of googling to confirm that US embassies all over the world issue nearly identical alerts—for the safety of their own nationals in-country—anytime a big demonstration is expected.
Despite the clear attempts to make the protests synonymous with Navalny the person, who could then be smeared as a Western spy, many people I spoke to marched for various reasons. In the words of Anna Yalovkina, a communications professional from St. Petersburg who attended her second-ever demonstration, “it’s easier for the government to discredit Navalny than to justify their own sins.” She added: “I didn’t march to stand up for Navalny. I went to stand up for myself, my own future.”
Perhaps the most absurd aspect of the coverage involved reporters and interviewees expressing concern for minors being put at risk by Navalny, while simultaneously disparaging their judgment and intelligence.
“The big danger is for children in crowds. Small children in crowds can get trampled on,” said Anna Kuznetsova, the Russian children’s rights commissioner. “To think that adults are putting out these treasonous calls for children to go” to the rallies. Moments later, a disappointed “Kristina from Krasnoyarsk” laments, “They said it would be a cool party. I heard about it on TikTok and Instagram and decided to go and see. They promised a party but this is the pits.” Numerous versions of Kristina, including “Sergey from Butovo” and “Sveta from Bibirevo,” have been quoted across state-owned media spouting similar ignorant views.
Such public denigration of a generation of future voters was an oddly self-defeating step for a government already concerned about its medium-term electoral prospects. It appeared to show a regime desperately scrambling to respond to events. And with good reason. Where opposition rallies were once confined mainly to Moscow and St Petersburg, this time demonstrations took place in over 120 cities from Murmansk to Irkutsk.
In a sign of how seriously such success was taken by the authorities, 3,960 people have so far been arrested in connection with the protests, according to the civil rights organization OVD Info. Among them were Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh and Georgy Alburov, who fronted the Putin’s Palace video, as well as dozens of other members and volunteers of Navalny’s Moscow and regional headquarters. On January 27, police searched Navalny’s apartment under the pretext of investigating suspected breaches of Covid rules. Even lawyers attempting to defend detainees have not been spared. In a particularly egregious example, Mansur Gilmanov, a lawyer from the civil rights NGO Apologia Protesta, which provides free legal aid to political prisoners, was wrestled to the ground by police while visiting his client and detained for five days.
The blossoming of organizations like OVD Info and Apologia Protesta suggests a significant revitalization of civil society. In the same way, Navalny’s concept of Smart Voting, where citizens vote strategically for the single strongest non–United Russia candidate in each district, has empowered a cohort of young people to enter politics without pledging fealty to Moscow. However, important questions remain about Navalny’s ability to channel his street popularity, media savvy, and undeniable moral authority into a coherent program for government.
“Navalny is an incredibly compelling moral figure,” said Sean Guillory of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. “But he is also a cipher, a proxy for all the grievances and dissatisfaction of a growing number of people.”
Guillory is skeptical of Navalny’s charismatic approach to politics. “Russia doesn’t need another guy on a white horse. It needs democracy from below,” he told me. He also criticizes Navalny for appearing to reduce corruption to a set of crimes committed by individual bad actors, when it is in fact a structural problem unlikely to be fixed by protests, free elections, or the rule of law alone.
Nowhere is Navalny more inscrutable than on economic policy. Formerly a classic free-market liberal, in recent years Navalny has begun to lean left by attacking inequality and corporate greed. But he has so far failed to express a coherent vision for an alternative economic settlement. “Navalny is a black box when it comes to the economy,” said Stanislav Markus, associate professor of international business at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. “Nobody knows much about his position.”
According to Markus, removing Putin without a concrete economic plan would be either impossible or meaningless so long as most natural resources and heavy industries remain controlled by his allies. “For these people, the arrival of the rule of law would mean losing their wealth, and even their freedom,” he said. As a result, they are unlikely to switch their allegiance to Navalny without a fight. And while more marginal oligarchs may initially welcome attempts to level the playing field, any potential gains are likely to be outweighed in their minds by the risk that Navalny—were he to heed the swelling popular demand for economic justice—might resort to redistributive policies that would hurt their business interests.
Such critiques of Navalny reflect an enduring and bitter divide between an old guard of pro-Western liberals leftover from the 1990s and a more critically minded generation, many forged by the 2008 financial crisis, who doubt the ability of boilerplate free-market capitalism to right society’s wrongs.
I asked veteran broadcaster, scholar, and activist Yevgenia Albats—a grande dame of the first group—whether Navalny can succeed without addressing the deep failings of the liberal democratic system with which he would presumably like to replace Putinism. “You evidently haven’t spent much time in Russia lately,” she e-mailed back. “Our problems are quite far removed from ‘failings of the liberal democratic system.’ We are concerned with survival, with basic rights, with the absence of legal institutions etc.”
Albats may have a point, but breezily dismissing the deep crises of legitimacy facing Western institutions, brought to the surface by Trump and Brexit, is not only shortsighted but also dangerous. The grievances that led so many Americans to vote for Trump echo those that helped sustain Putin’s rise: the feeling of being forgotten or ridiculed by arrogant and entitled elites, the sense that despite formal freedoms society is a rigged game, that the country and its rulers simply have no need for ordinary people like them. Certainly, ignorance and prejudice also play their part. But ignoring such parallels only bolsters Putin’s last remaining argument for clinging to power: that the opposition’s version of democracy would simply return Russia to the chaos and iniquity of the 1990s.
It is possible that we will one day look back on January 2021 as the beginning of the end of Putin’s reign. But for all the heroism of Navalny’s convictions and the energy on the streets, the movement still has a long way to go before it becomes a government in waiting. That won’t happen until Navalny and his supporters find their economic and ideological bearings and act on them. “We all want this to be the tipping point, but just because you want it doesn’t bring it closer,” Markus said. “Such concentrations of money and power don’t just disappear into thin air.”